Charlie Cook On Air: Losing Ground

Is radio losing the mantle as the number one source for music introduction to the country fan? In a word, no. In a full sentence, maybe just a little bit.

Part of this may be because radio programmers have become increasingly conservative in their approach to what music they play and how they instruct their air staff to approach the music. The increasing use of voice tracking has also impacted some artists’ growth.

There is music that has generated downloads way past their radio play and chart successes. My friend Tom Roland at Billboard pointed out earlier this week that Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” has collected 450,000 digital downloads with only recent broadcast radio play.

I do know that FGL played a ton of live shows this spring and summer. I doubt that they got out in front of a half a million fans but they worked very hard to press the flesh and that helped for sure. Let’s also say that the song is catchy enough and we are still very much a song-driven format for everyone but the top 10 acts.

A recent CMA study confirmed that broadcast radio is still the big driver and no one wants to chance success without AM or FM.

Mr. Roland also referenced Colt Ford and Lionel Ritchie as examples of huge sales performances without much radio play. In fact Mr. Ritchie is the number one selling “country” CD so far this year.

Both of these cases come with caveats as big as the Grand Canyon.

Colt Ford is the new Hank Jr. I ripped into his new CD when it arrived in the mail. It is one of those “turn it up and lower your car windows” so your neighbors know that you’re cooler than Google Earth.

People south of the Mason-Dixon Line wake up every day wondering when the next Colt Ford CD is going to drop.

Lionel Ritchie got a turbo boost from the Academy of Country Music with a 2 hour TV special crowning Mr. Ritchie the king of crossover country. That didn’t hurt. Additionally, the Ritchie/Twain duet got some Adult Contemporary radio play.

I mentioned above that programmers are conservative. Without question this is true but I wonder if this is a chicken/egg deal. I thought that the Colt Ford/Jake Owens record had legs. I encouraged the stations that I work with to try it out at night and see if there was interest in the song for more high profile play. The CD sold nicely but those were apparently the fans. Plus broadcast radio could not play a few of the songs. This is was where I rolled my windows up so my neighbors would not come to other conclusions.

Should programmers swallow hard and schedule Colt and Lionel based on the significant sales or are they legitimate in saying, “yeah there is a lot of interest in these acts, but they are not radio (my) listeners.” Who gets hurt the most there?

I also mentioned that the preponderance of voice tracking hurts new acts. You would have to understand the distance an announcer has from the music when voice tracking.

As a slight aside here, while I am writing this note, I am listening to “Kiss Me Like That” by Toby Keith. I have to stop writing so that I can sing along. I LOVE that song. When I was on the air I would dance around the studio (an ugly sight) and sing at the top of my lungs (a painful experience for all involved) and that exuberance would come across on the air.

If I was voice tracking, that energy would not make it through the speakers. First, too many announcers think of voice tracking as a chore but I loved being on the air. Loved it more than anything I have ever done for money. Voice tracking is something that you do after your air shift or instead of coming in on the weekend. The thought and passion does not come through. I agree that some jocks are better than others but I contend the best is doing 80% of doing it live.

When you come across a group or song like FGL too many stations are not giving it the enthusiasm needed to make the listener stop and notice.

Losing the authority of being the source of music discovery to the listener would be disasterous for radio. Many music stations have already lost the information authority. Don’t give up the territory by being too conservative or dispassionate.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MusicRow. Stay tuned for a future article about Florida Georgia Line’s early success with small market radio)

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